Of Joyce Banda, opening lodges and other matters of Malawi

On Tuesday President Joyce Banda opened the Shire Lodge at Liwonde.

The evening before, when the news of the impending lodge opening ceremony was announced, an avalanche of posts on Facebook and Twitter emerged, expressing dismay that the entire President of the Republic of Malawi should be reduced to opening ‘lodges.’

I read only one post on the Facebook page of one of my friends, who argued against the popular opinion.

He argued that it was not beneath the stature of the Office of President to open lodges.

The Facebook socialite backed his argument as follows:

  •        In March 2001, President Festus Mogae of Botswana opened Tati River Lodge in Francistown.
  •         In 2011, President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania opened Bilila Lodge Kempinski.
  •       In the same 2011, President Lt General Seretse Khama Ian Khama opened the Ngoma Lodge in Botswana.
  •        In 2010, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda opened the Chobe Safari Lodge.

Of course President Banda cannot be justified to open a lodge on account of the fact that the President of Tanzania did the same. These are countries facing dissimilar economic situations.

President Banda in maize handouts

I appreciate the writer’s viewpoint, however, that to suggest that the opening of a lodge is beneath the stature of President is erroneous.

This, after all, is a lodge that, we are told, cost K1 billion, or around US$3 million, which is a significant investment. We need such investments in Malawi. If it has to take the presiding of the Head of State to commemorate the opening of such infrastructure to encourage more investment in tourism, so be it.

President Mrs Joyce Banda finds herself in the unfamiliar territory of dancing an undanceable dance. She is damned if she dances one step forward, damned, too, if she dances one step backwards, and damned, as well, if she doesn’t dance at all.

At first the criticism was that she was doing too much international travelling. When she toned that down the criticism is that she is traveling too much locally. Some of the tasks she is preoccupying herself with, such as the distribution of maize flour to hunger-stricken households, are unpresidential, so the argument goes.

There is, of course, merit, in these arguments. It baffles some of us that the Head of State seems to preside over the coronation of every chief. Some of these tasks could, indeed, better be left to the line minister, so that the President should focus on the more strategic issues affecting our country.

It does not serve the Head of State well to dismiss such concerns offhand. When Nation on Sunday recently carried out a survey, the majority of Malawians did not think it fitting for a Head of State to be engaging in such operational matters.

Rather than listen to Malawians, the Office of the President chose to be on the defensive, dismissing the survey in a press statement, and boasting of having spies in the newsroom. A better Malawi cannot be built with such attitude. Listen to the dissenting voices and change
where you can.

The criticism, however, needs to take some relevant issues into consideration as follows:

  •      Was her travel budget approved by Parliament? Yes, it was.
  •      Has it been exceeded? No.

It would really be an issue if she exceeded her travel budget and returned to Parliament to ask for more before the end of the fiscal year.

There are other aspects of the travel I find worrisome. For example:

  •        Why, for instance, would a Vice President, Minister of Finance and other cabinet ministers, permanent secretaries and Members of Parliament spend an entire day with the President at a function of the coronation of a chief? What happens, then, to productivity?
  •        Why should the Vice President, ministers, permanent secretaries and MPs leave their offices to be at the airport during the departures and arrivals of the President? Yes, former Presidents Hastings Kamuzu Banda, Bakili Muluzi and Bingu wa Mutharika did it, but should the

tendency continue because others did it? Would the stature of the presidency be reduced if only her security team were to be the only people welcoming her at the airport? We see Barack Obama, President of the United States, leave and return to the US, with no cabinet ministers and Deputy President waiting at the airport to welcome him or to see him off, yet his dignity as President remains intact. Again what happens to productivity in such cases?

There is room for a better approach towards some of these issues. Though past is prologue, the Office of President needs to ask itself serious questions whether it is necessary to continue with these practices.

While we ask so much of the Head of State, we, Malawians, also need to change our mentality towards many issues.

  •     We are quick to praise our leaders, turning them into gods.
  •       We are quick to forget. The villains of yesteryears are quickly looked upon as the heroes of today.
  •        We personify development. ‘Kamuzu built this. Bingu built that.’ Why not say we Malawians built this? It is our tax. They borrow from the World Bank and build a bridge, but, in the end, it is you and me who pay through our taxes, so we build those things. In America or Britain or any of the western countries from which democracy came, they never attach development projects to a specific individual. When Obama goes, you will not hear an American say ‘Obama built that school.’
  •        We sometimes criticize because it is a popular thing to do, and not necessarily to offer alternative solutions.

For the final point above, take Consumer Welfare Association Executive Director, John Kapito, for instance.  In March this year he severely lambasted Bingu wa Mutharika for not listening to donors to devalue the Kwacha, accusing the President of plunging Malawi into misery as a result. We clapped hands then and cheered him on. Now he is leading the accusation against the President for devaluing the Kwacha, and, once again, we are clapping hands and cheering him on. Is this right?

One fact should always be remembered: if we are looking for a saint, then we shall always be disappointed. There will never be one. Anyone that would come into office today would disappoint in one way or another.

All of us want a better Malawi. There is no malice in this criticism. We all do it in good faith. It would be helpful, however, to give the Head of State criticism that would shape her into a better leader, rather than tear her down. In the same vein, the President and her office would be doing themselves and Malawians a favour if they listened to the criticism rather than dismiss it, or, worse, see it as the work of opposition parties.

That, anyway, is my two tambala perspective.

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